Monday, June 11, 2007

Day 316: On the Banks of the Kolyma

Hello again dear readers! I’m writing from Cherskii, Russia on the magnificent banks of the Kolyma river from my little cabin. While my new home has many charms, good internet is not one of them. Unfortunately, the Russian dial-up connection not only does not allow my personal computer to connect, but also drives me to the edges of sanity with its snails-pace. So we have two problems. Firstly, at most I will only be able to upload a few photos, if any, to a post. Secondly, I am working off a Russian computer, and Blogger insists that it runs in Russian, so I need to memorize the right buttons to push to publish to a page. Difficult times.

But enough of that boring business! Much more interesting are the events of the last week – what things to tell! Since you cannot have photos, you will have to deal with my words for now…an odious ordeal, but use your imagination.

The majority of my trip through Russia was spent in wild gestures and confused stares and vicious abuse of my luggage. Amazingly, you can traverse the majority of a continent without actually speaking to anyone. Occasionally, this even came in handy – an example of dealing with Russian security forces:

Airport security (in Russian): What’s this weird, metallic thing that looks like knives in your luggage? [pointing to an x-ray screen]
Me: I don’t speak Russian!
Security (in Russian): Ok, you can go. [waved on]


I spent two nights in Yaktusk waiting for my flights to Cherskii. My hotel was clean enough, if, by my conventional standards, rather…unsettling. Getting breakfast was a relatively painless affair, thanks to a copy of the menu in English. While waiting for my food (a highly anticipated plate of eggs and bacon), an old Russian man, complete with tarnished military metals, approached my table and started talking to me in Russian. I tried to explain that I didn’t speak Russian, but either he was hard of hearing or (actually, probably and) he equally had no idea what I was saying. Undeterred he took a seat across from me at my little table, where we sat in awkward silence through our meals. I offered little smiles and tried to be polite, but I had no idea what to say or what he expected from me. Eventually I fled back to my room.

My original plan was to boldly walk around and see some bit of Yakutsk, but being paranoid with safety I opted to play the day safe. Some reading (and luckily a stint on the internet, on the hotel’s one-and-only computer) brought me to lunchtime, which I had eagerly anticipated. Lunchtime, back in the hotel’s mini restaurant, was a complete disaster. The same little waitress, treating me and everyone else with barely-concealed contempt, was utterly unmoved by my inability to read the lunch menu, which was completely in Russian. I had absolutely no clue what anything said, and tried to convey that to her, hoping for some kind of suggestion. I got the icy stare. So I did a point-and-shoot at the menu, figuring that I’d get something edible at least, and was determined to put down whatever she brought out.

When she emerged from the kitchen, my worst fears were realized. The plate she put before me contained an incredible display of what I had passionately hoped I didn’t point at. In a small, fish-shaped plate was a scoop of…stuff. Starving and determined, I took a big forkful and shoveled it in my face. I was immediately forced to press my tongue against the roof of my mouth to keep from vomiting. I’m sure these complaints will fall on unsympathetic ears for some readers, but what was placed before me was a sort of cold salad consisting of shredded pickled beets and unrecognizable old pickled fish, heavily doused in a sort of sour-milk herb crème sauce. Hunger won out, and I tried to convince myself that eating was better than being picky. Three teary-eyed mouthfuls later, I decided barfing in the restaurant was not going to make old Icy-Eyes love me any more. It was the fish I couldn’t handle. I think it was pickled, or some other ungodly preparation. The one piece of fish I found untouched by the rotten-milk sauce was a sort of dirty-grayish color. I assume that means it was pickled, rather than merely raw and slightly decayed.

My plans to stay inside were thwarted – I had to go out and find food. Not finding a market, I went to a “Max Food” to see what I could see through the window. It looked pretty casual and empty, so I decided to try to get something. While standing in line, the woman in front of me turned around, smiled, and said “bunch of Russian I don’t understand basketball?” Understanding the universal language for tall people, I shook my head and smiled back, desperately trying to remember “no” in Russian. “Nyet, nyet basketball” I eventually got out. This inspired a string of excited Russian, which forced me to shrug, smile, and say that I don’t understand. This produced a blank stare, so I pointed to myself and said “American”. I guess she understood and smiled broadly, and I think she said something to the extent (in Russian) of “is this food good to you?” At least, that’s what I think she might have said. I shrugged again, which made her laugh heartily.

Overall, I was extremely struck by how much it reminded me of the cities I lived in in China – the same sort of architecture and, frankly, general grime, and – I hope not to offend anyone – the remarkable similarities in appearance in the people. I had originally assumed that I would blend in fairly well pretending to be Russian as long as I didn’t open my mouth, but I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the Yakutian natives.

On a few flights, I was one of less than half a dozen women. On all flights after Moscow, I was certainly the only foreigner. The flight between Yakutsk to…eh…place I really can’t name because it was sort of a surprise stop, and the ticket only says it in Cyrillic…was on the sketchiest flying contraption I’ve ever set eyes on. We had to load our own luggage on a rickety old plane, where our check-in luggage was loosely held down with a net in between the pilot and the passengers. During the flight, one woman’s little dog ran up and down the aisle, yipping at everyone.

We landed in Mystery Location on a dirt runway – actually a first for me, I’ve landed on snow and ice but never dirt – and with a few bounces (4) and a slight spin-out, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. The only place to go was over to a helicopter, into which the 10 remaining passengers loaded their luggage, climbed inside and held on for the 2 hour trek across the Siberian taiga.

As it turns out, my new home is in the taiga – a flat land covered in trees and lakes. For everyone worrying that I will surely freeze to death in Siberia, never fear. While it is the coldest place in the northern hemisphere, its also has the most extreme variation – right now its about 20C (eh, 65Fish) outside, and will probably get up to 35C (90F) before I leave. No snow and ice here. I should have sent home all of my winter gear.

The land is beautiful. Cherskii is in ruins. Once a town of nearly 10,000, the collapse of the Soviet Union completely obliterated its financial support, and the 3000 or so remaining people are a collection of old townspeople and settlers drawn in from the wilderness. There is literally nothing for 500km in every direction. I live at a science station about 4km outside of town, right above the enormous Kolyma river. I’ve been given my own little cabin to live in, and frankly I love it. The seclusion of the area fits me very well. There’s electricity (most of the time) and running water - which is pumped directly out of the river, so it has to be boiled to use, but remains a nerve-wracking distinct brown color, which I suppose is safe enough and rather tasty if you close your eyes and pretend its an exotic tea.

The debris of greater days is seen everywhere. From my window I can see three half-sunk barges in the river, and neighboring houses are shoddy at best…apparently not abandoned as I originally assumed. All the same, the view is stunning – the land is so flat, I can predict the weather nearly a day in advance – you can see everything that’s coming, and the twist of the river miles off. There’s birds I’ve never seen before, mosquitoes the size of my thumb, and – most awesomely! – huge old fossils everywhere! Mammoth tusks and femurs line up against the wall of my cabin, while the station director and his wife have prehistoric rhinoceros skulls and bison horns in their living room.

Food is a bit of an adventure – I’ve figured out enough basic cooking to take care of myself, and assumed buying and cooking my food wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal. As it turns out, the “market” in Cherskii is a mash-up of tiny stores hidden away in the bottoms of old apartment buildings, run by people selling random bits of life from clothes to expired food cans to tire irons. Its not so simple as picking things out of a market, and I require the help of the station director’s wife to ask for things. Most unexpectedly, however, is the severe lack of supplies in town. Let alone particular tastes, the most basic items are simply, and absolutely, unavailable. Eggs and potatoes are non-existent, two of my (and really, I assumed everyone’s) staples in an extremely simple diet. The one thing I find cheap and plentiful and clean in every store are rows and rows of alcohol.

For now I spend my days walking around the area where I live – I’ve been told there are no snakes, no poisonous plants, and the bears and wolves are nothing to worry about, so I’m fairly safe exploring the limited roads. I’m looking forward to meeting some of the other people who will visit the station this summer – for now, I’ve been largely left to myself. For now, I focus on conditioning my foot, which remains a rather incredible source of pain. The scar is healing, though, and I’ve started running. I expect it will hurt for quite awhile yet.

I will do my best to give news at least once a week. I am truly in the middle of nowhere, and as I look out my window it seems rather incredible that I’m writing to an international audience at all.

Argh...technical difficulties uploading photos. I really hope I'll be able to show you what Siberia looks like soon.

And now, I need to go boil some water for tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I love it. Favorite post of the year, aside from the one where you surprised me with pictures of HENKKA!!!

Anyway. "so it has to be boiled to use, but remains a nerve-wracking distinct brown color, which I suppose is safe enough and rather tasty if you close your eyes and pretend its an exotic tea."
--Ummm, fine, there are no bacteria growing in it, but I don't even want to think about all the heavy metals and pollutants from mining and gas drilling and lord knows what else... you should've brought yourself a water filter with you. Can we send you one? Do you have an address up there? Does DHL deliver? Boy, when you get cancer in 40 years, I know what caused it...

Sounds like your cabin is wonderful. Wish I was there.

The are other things to respond to, but this suffices for now. Hi.

Der Wilderer said...


Wow, what a contrast to UNIS! Really hope you can manage to put some photos on the blog... Yea, maybe you should change your diet to a bottle of Vodka per day. This probably kills the bacteria from the rotten fish and could give you a deep insight into the russian soul. You know, when in Rome do as the Romans ; )

Da Svidanja


sam said...

one thing i found really helpful when i was in moscow was learning the pronunciation of Cyrillic letters. especially for technical terms, there are a LOT of russian-english cognates, or russian-familiar latinate root cognates, or whatever. the problem is, if you can't pronounce the letters, you don't realize it's basically the same word.

Other than a few tricky letters and sounds, it doesn't take too much practice to get to the point where you can sound things out slowly, which hopefully will make some things a little easier.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is "WOW" and , greedy viewer that I am, "I want more!"

I thought you in China was out there and totally foriegn, at least there you spoke decent Mandarin.

Remember hunting for trilobites in Cadiz? Your new hunting grounds makes that seem tame. Now go send home a Mammoth tusk!

Take care of that foot.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.